Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Ashley George: Gender-Inclusive Language in Interpretations of the Qur’an

When we read the Qur’an, it can become apparent that the message feels sometimes more centered towards men, simply because male pronouns are used so often when we’d think the text would refer to people regardless of gender. Many scholars have pointed this fact out, raising debate and dialogue regarding whether one ought to read the Qur’an with male-centrist language or if we should move to a feminist or gender-neutral reading of the text instead. There are numerous arguments for and against this change in interpretation and my goal is to thoroughly analyze the case for reading the Qur’an in a gender neutral mindset and to see what societal changes would result from this. I will study the scholarship and arguments of scholars for and against this reading and I will explore how this method would or would not change traditions and institutions as we know them today.

Abdunasir Sideeg asks the question, “whether the excessive use of male-centered words in many religious texts is an affirmation of God‘s intention for gender relations, or is God ― ‘accommodating to a particular societal structure’? This suggests that rather than the Qur’an being an inflexible, set-in-stone text, it is rather meant to convey concepts and values that should be molded to fit the society of those living who are reading the text. The Qur’an is indeed the word of God, but perhaps this was the word of God using terms and attitudes that specifically reflected the time and society that Prophet Muhammad lived in. For example, it may have made less sense to address women when God is instructing families to give fair inheritance to children regardless of gender. Women did not have the power to determine inheritance, so it doesn’t make sense to tell them to give fair shares of inheritance.

I, however, find problems with Sideeg’s further argument. He analyzes the works of other scholars on this topic, one being Camille Helminski. Helminski, of the Sufi faith, translates a passage of the Qur’an, and in it, she uses the pronoun “Hu” or “هو” in Arabic, and then she later uses the phrase “He/She” where normally we would say “He.” Sideeg challenges this by saying that because Helminski is Sufi and Sufi scholars have a background of enshrining God as a feminine being, her testimony is biased and invalid. He says, “ This choice…demonstrates the strong and significant effect of her Sufi background and ideology in shaping the linguistic content in translating the Qurān in a way that no other factor could do.”

I think one of the questions we should pose in this debate is “Is there any significance to viewing God as a man?” What I mean by this is, does God being a man serve any crucial purpose? If not, then I don’t see why it should matter what gender we apply to God, and better yet I think we shouldn’t make gender such an important factor in our reading of the Qur’an. Certainly we must pay attention to the effect the words of God have on people of different genders in this world, as men, women and others are all treated very differently based on their gender identity. But God on the other hand, is one of a kind, and therefore I personally can understand how gender does not apply to God in the way that it does to us. After all, gender is a social construct that humans have made up to try to make sense of life and the way we feel.

Opposite from Sideeg, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed, another scholar of Arabic and Islam, cites gender-neutral interpretations of the Qur’an as a step towards gender justice and inclusivity in religious communities. He explains that his affinity to gender-neutral language stems from his goal to “disrupt predominant, presumably gender-biased, linguistic norms, and, in the process, possibly make some social change through language.” He cites the advantages of using gender-neutral language which include being more inclusive of a female audience and encourage gender equality rather than frame men and male oriented people as being inherently more pious or better.

Mohamed Ahmed explains that while he first came across this concept in English, he was troubled that this may not be feasible in other languages like Arabic where words are inherently gendered and there is no gender-neutral pronoun like “they” in English. He says that he has discovered a means of solving this problem, in Egyptian Arabic, “حد”or “Hadd” has been used to mean “someone,” and though grammatically the term itself is masculine, it can be used to refer to one who is of different genders. It could refer to someone who is a man, a woman, and in theory, neither of those. This is a very interesting area of study because Arabic is like so many languages where gender is so heavily intertwined with grammar, which leads to finding gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns and terminology to be much more difficult. In English we have come to simply use the term “they” to express gender-neutrality and diverge from the gender binary, but many languages do not have the same equivalent. At the same time, “they” in English was always used to denote plural subjects, not singular, but as a society we have actively made the decision to disregard this and adopt a singular “they” into our colloquial language and our scholarship as well.

I think Mohamed Ahmed brings up an important point about how having predominantly men interpret the Qur’an has lead to our readings of the Qur’an being heavily male-centric in language. I think this is demonstrated through Sideeg’s criticism of gender-inclusive language in various interpretations of the Qur’an, specifically because he is a male scholar who is talking about why a feminist reading is essentially bad and not as God intended. Simply put, he has a bias, as a man and in the way he is disregarding the experiences and opinions of a woman who is also a Muslim scholar. They both should have the space to voice their opinions on this matter, but I don’t think Sideeg is considering that as a man, he has had a completely different experience in the Muslim community and the world at large, and perhaps he may not understand the true effect that male-centric and patriarchal undertones have on women and make their lives harder or less equal.

Honestly, the main reason I find gender-neutral language to be crucial is that I think we need to make baby steps to put the gender binary behind us. Since we are conditioned to only see things in black and white, men and women, it makes sense that we are used to these things and simply do or think as we’re told, not questioning what even is a man or a woman or what is gender, really? Because of this, we don’t make room for people who do not fit into either of these categories. Sex and gender are two different things, and not everyone is going to feel like a “man” or a “woman.” Of course change takes time and getting used to normalizing this concept will not happen overnight, but we must make the effort to acknowledge the existence of people who have always been there and deserve to be recognized. Sideeg refers to gender-inclusive language as being a radical and extreme feminist idea, but I strongly disagree with him; it’s simply making room for everyone, no matter what gender they identify with. It’s certainly not excluding anyone, which is the goal!

Wail Qasim, a non-binary black Muslim talks about the intersection of all of their identities and how it was difficult to find themself because of all the expectations that came with so many of their identities. They say, “At the time, aged 12, it also seemed as though these were fundamental disagreements between who I was and who I was supposed to be, especially with regards to my religion.” I think this is a huge way normalizing the use of gender-neutral language in our everyday lives can make a difference, by showing people that they are who they are, they’re not a cookie-cutter person that society expects them to be. Especially for a young person growing up reading the Qur’an, this could be an incredibly helpful way of allowing them to find themselves through their faith, in which their creator loves them and made them exactly how they’re supposed to be. Qasim brings up a very important point when they say, “We like to think we are all complex individuals who can’t be reduced to descriptors, but often there are moments when we are forced to identify with something – to label ourselves Somali, black, queer, working class, Muslim or gender nonconforming. Everything on that list applies to me. It may be that none of them apply to you, but does that matter?” They stress that even if most people do not identify in the same way they do, we shouldn’t only care about groups that we fit into, we must care about all human beings, all of God’s creations, not just some of them.


Works cited:

Ahmed, Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed. “Androgynous Content: Gender-inclusive Language in Quranic Arabic and Egyptian Arabic.” Master’s thesis, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 2015.
Qasim, Wail. “Being a Black, British, Queer, Non-binary Muslim Isn’t a Contradiction | Wail Qasim.” The Guardian. June 20, 2016. Accessed May 19, 2018.
Sideeg, Abdunasir. “Traces of Ideology and the Gender-Neutrall Controversy in Translating the Qurrn: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Three Cases.” Arab World English Journal, May 2015, 167-81. Accessed May 19, 2018. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2844008.

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